11 February 2012

Child's play

Professional sport, it may be argued, is an oddly childish way to make a living. And nowhere was that better demonstrated than today at Old Trafford, where one man's selfish immaturity brought out the worst in everyone. As depressing a spectacle as this was, it's merely one of a succession of stupid feuds, tantrums, rancorous spats and general pettiness that keep the sports pages bubbling over between matches. More than just bickering, this behaviour, as embodied in today's brouhaha between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez, is also characterised by judgement so poor that is almost autistic in its lack of awareness of other people.

Leaving aside the more serious offences committed by these athletes, let's not forget the frequent car crashes, affairs, tattooing, preening and house-pimping that goes barely noticed by a general public desensitised to the concept of a teenager earning a million pounds a month for kicking things. Mario Balotelli is the poster boy for this behaviour; stories about his follies are legendary, from setting off fireworks in his bathroom to wandering unannounced into schools to use the toilets. We raise our eyebrows, or shake our heads - but should we be amazed at such jejune antics from our leading sports stars?

It wasn't always this way, and before we all get nostalgic about the Corinthian Ideal, it's easy to forget how we ended up like this. When I was a child, my professional footballing heroes earned little more than an office worker. Around the time I was born, it was commonplace for pros to work a second job in the off-season to make a living. This week, when everyone has been imploring the FA to pay Harry Redknapp £4million a year to be the England manager, we might reflect as a player he used to stack supermarket shelves in the summers between football seasons. The man who will most likely manage England on a temporary basis, Stuart Pearce, used to advertise his electrician's business in the Nottingham Forest programmes when he first played for the club in the 1980s.

In the 25 or so years that have passed since you could call "Psycho" to come and wire your house, the game has improved in ways that would have seemed fantasy in my childhood. Technical standards, fitness levels, preparation and planning - nothing is now left to chance in pursuit of excellence. The quality of football played is vastly superior, but the trade-off is the increasing infantilisation of its players. By removing the distractions from a player's life that allow him to focus single-mindedly on kicking a plastic sphere, you are forcibly removing him from all reference points of reality. From the moment he gets up until when he goes to bed, he is told what to do, what to wear, what to eat, where to go and where not to go. His finances, diet, catering, household are all managed for him. If his on-field behaviour sometimes goes beyond the cynical, it's because he knows both the price and value of nothing.

In return, the price for spine-tingling football played at breakneck speed by the human equivalent of thoroughbred racehorses is their continued existence in a child-like state of opulence. In a profession full of Peter Pans, we shouldn't wonder why they behave so appallingly on occasion. Instead we should marvel that they don't do it more often. Racism is not a price worth paying for such sporting rewards, but even at their most sophisticated, games rarely stray far from the playground.

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